Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Pin the Map Project: How I Got Lost in the Borneo Jungle

Afternoon in Borneo. The sweat drips down my body, filling every curve and crevice. My knees, my stomach, my neck are all damp as the jungle wraps itself around me like an uncomfortable sweater.

My legs are streaked in dirt, covering layers of mosquito spray and suntan lotion beneath. More than twenty four hours on a riverboat and my transformation from clean-washed city slicker to Jungle Jane has been nothing short of extraordinary.

If given another few days in Borneo, I just might grow accustomed to mosquito net clad beds and mud-streaked limbs. After nearly 48 hours in the jungle, perhaps I already am.

I’m walking along the trails of Camp Leaky—one of the oldest animal research centers in the world—specializing in the conservation and protection of wild orangutans in Central Borneo. Camp Leaky was established in the 1970s and is an ongoing research project exploring the nuances of orangutan behavior and their social dynamics.

Before Camp Leaky, orangutans—native only to Borneo and neighboring Sumatra—were driven to the brink of extinction. More than 8 million acres of South East Asia’s forests have been destroyed in the name of Palm Oil plantations.

The profitability of palm oil—an ingredient used in everything from soaps to snack foods—tosses dollar signs in the eyes of many; leaving wildlife—such as orangutans—as victims. It’s a classic story of greed, profit and collateral damage in one of the world’s last bio-diverse sanctuaries.

Tourism in Borneo is of grave importance now. The need to attract people, showcase the local wild orangutans and inspire action are what draw travelers to this remote island between Malaysia and Indonesia.

I am traveling with a group of strangers; mostly writers brought together from various countries for the sake of shining light on Indonesia’s less visited destinations. I guess you can say I’m a travel writer. Like my fellow trip mates, I have come to South East Asia on the wings of my writing—a reality I still have trouble grasping.

Admittedly, my life as a travel writer is an odd juxtaposition. On one hand, I am afforded travel experiences around the world—a visit to Borneo, a camel trek in Morocco, a market tour in the Philippines—on the other hand, I cringe each time I check my bank account balance when back in my over priced, undersized New York apartment.

Since leaving my career in advertising, calling off my wedding and moving into a new apartment—all in pursuit of a travel writing dream—I have felt both free yet lost. Financial woes nip at my heels while the promise of the next great writing assignment beckons from behind every corner.

It’s why I’m now in Indonesia—despite being in dire need of a reliable source of income—I flipped my life upside down in pursuit of this passion. When it calls me, I come running—even if I’m running across the world for it.

A hike from Camp Leaky’s riverboat dock finds my fellow travelers and I at a feeding observation spot in the middle of the Borneo jungle. Set up like an inverse zoo, humans sit in a roped off enclosure while wild orangutan munch on bananas just feet ahead.

A row of rickety, wooden benches placed in front of a single, nylon rope separates visiting tourists from the large apes. It’s the way animal viewing should be; without cages, crowds and ticket lines. The red-orange fur of the orangutans glows as the afternoon sun hits their backs.

A bald, baby orangutan clings to its mother like life support as she gently feeds him. A younger male orangutan—the ape equivalent of a teenager—proves mischievous as he bundles bananas in his arms and slinks off into the trees with his loot.

I’m inches from the rope, entranced by the orangutans in front of me. Their interactions play out like some sort of Borneo-style soap opera. There’s the doting mother, there’s the trouble making neighbor, there’s the stubborn father. The very word “orangutan” is a Malaysian/Indonesia word for “people of the forest” and as I watch these animals with their human-like tendencies, I can see why.